by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School field hockey team added to its impressive win total on Saturday, Sept. 28, with a 2-0 win over Johnson, bringing their season record to 9-3-1.
Coach Mary Pat Mercuro had hoped to use the one tie, a 0-0 affair at MKA’s Muenster Field on Thursday, Sept. 26 against crosstown rival Montclair Kimberley Academy, to fire up her team.
“We’ve found some success and I think we’re becoming a little complacent and we’ve got to turn it back on,” she said after Thursday’s tie. “That’s my goal for the next couple of weeks. Ignite the fire again.”
The win over Johnson seems to indicate it did.
Coming into the game against MHS, the Cougars (1-6-1) had some momentum of their own. MKA had just beaten Millburn 2-0, their first victory of the season, and they brought that energy with them to face the Mounties.
“I think they played great,” said MKA coach Gia Nappi of her team. “Especially coming into this tough game, even though we had a good win against Millburn, I think it’s different every game. So they were still excited about that, but the nerves coming into this game were definitely high, so I think the way they performed, especially due to that, it was phenomenal.”
The two teams fought back and forth during the course of the match, with each team having numerous chances both in regulation as well as overtime.
Mercuro said that while the team played well in the center of the field, they need to work harder in scoring positions.
“I think we played a great game between the 25s, but our circle defense needs some work,” Mercuro said. “Between the 25s I think we’re solid. Our inside/outside passing was there and they worked the ball around a couple of times. I was really happy with that. It’s just below the 25s where we have to start working harder.”
One of the bigger factors, according to Mercuro, is the team having faith in their stick-handling. When the Mounties take the ball and move with it, they can be hard to contain, but Mercuro said they aren’t trusting themselves enough.
“I mean, you’re inside the 25, use that good stickwork and get in there,” she said. “But they kind of just want to pass it lately and they don’t want to take it to [the defense]. But they do have the tools, they’ve just got to have the confidence to use them. We’re constantly encouraging them to take it to them.”
Mercuro said against a team that can play defense, like the Cougars, you have to take those chances because even if the Mounties are executing, MKA can clog up their offensive chances.
“You can’t take anything away from MKA, defensively they were so solid.”
For Nappi, watching her Cougars create chances on corners and other free hits was cause for excitement.
“[We work on it] literally every practice,” she said. “[Getting] inside the 25 for those free hits and trying to force into a corner. We were really proud of them when they got those opportunities today to be able to generate the corners. Obviously, we’d rather have a goal on a corner too, but it’s OK.”
Neither side was able to capitalize on their corners on Thursday, including in overtime, where the Mounties in particular threatened to convert corners to goals three times, but came up short.
“They’ve got a really nice defense and I’m very young up front, [on the] forward line,” Mercuro said. “I’m playing a lot of sophomores. It’s just one of those games where we couldn’t penetrate. Once they stopped us they got the big hits and we just couldn’t do it in the offensive circle.”
Not only were both defenses playing well, so were the goalies. MHS senior Amanda Murnick and MKA sophomore Chloe Lebovitch came up big with saves several times during the game.
At one point, Murnick had to peer through a scrum of players in front of her net to make a key save and preserve the tie. She would end up with six saves total.
While Mercuro feels that she is looking to fire up her team a bit more, Nappi feels like her Cougars could be starting to peak at the right time, with the Essex County Tournament set to get underway this week.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” she said. “Because we knew coming in [to the season] we had a couple of people injured, and a new [starting] goalie who’d never played for us before. So, we knew it would be a little bit of a struggle in the beginning but we’re glad to see them peak now.”